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Joe Biden said the pandemic is over. Here’s where cases stand in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

There are positive signs that the virus is largely resulting in less severe outcomes than at earlier points in the pandemic.

Temple University students make their way along Polett Walk in August.
Temple University students make their way along Polett Walk in August.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

President Joe Biden declared the COVID pandemic ended, but that statement may reflect what Americans are willing to accept more than a sudden change in the virus’ course.

His comments followed the World Health Organization’s statement that the end of the pandemic was “in sight,” as the global death toll reached its lowest level since March 2020.

“The pandemic is over,” Biden said in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over.”

The president added, “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, and so I think it’s changing.”

Local health experts said the definition of pandemic depends as much on how society reacts as the health toll itself, and by that metric they agreed with the president’s assessment.

“It’s not that the virus has gone away, it’s not that the danger is gone, it’s just that people are not willing to do much about it,” said Jeffrey S. Morris, director of biostatistics at University of Pennsylvania’s department of biostatistics, epidemiology, and informatics.

However, according to epidemiologists, an epidemic becomes a pandemic when a sudden and unexpected rise in cases happens in multiple countries, so the situation in one country cannot technically mark the end of a pandemic.

But there are positive signs that the virus is now largely resulting in less severe outcomes.

The numbers

Hospitals are no longer at risk of being overwhelmed, and the average number of deaths per day in the United States is a quarter of what it was about a year ago. Still, an average of more than 450 people are dying due to virus complications every day.

» READ MORE: What will living with COVID mean for the coming years? The common cold may provide clues.

In Pennsylvania, daily deaths have consistently stayed in the teens since June, according to state data, remaining at that plateau as case surges have come and gone. It’s not a record low for Pennsylvania, which reported fewer deaths per day in July and August 2021, but it’s the first time deaths have stayed so stable for so long.

New Jersey’s death rates are lower, with the state reporting 20 or more deaths in a single day just three times since the beginning of June, according to the New York Times COVID tracker.

In Philadelphia, hospitalizations reached one of their pandemic highs in July, city data showed, but have declined since, and deaths didn’t see a parallel rise.

“COVID-19 is still circulating in Philadelphia, so the pandemic is not over in that sense,” said Matt Rankin, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “But we have learned to live with it and to get back to doing the things we enjoy.”

The average daily count of new cases across the country is at its lowest since spring, according to the New York Times, and in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, that number has remained flat over the past two weeks. (Recorded case numbers now likely represent only a fraction of the true count, experts caution, due to the increased availability of at-home testing.)

Pennsylvania and New Jersey health officials say they expect transmission to increase in the fall but with less-severe consequences than prior years.

“Overall, compared to a year ago, New Jersey is in much better shape. Deaths and hospitalizations are lower and immunization is up,” said Nancy Kearney, spokesperson for the department of health. “We are seeing people learning to live with COVID, but they should still be taking reasonable precautions” and making sure they are up-to-date on vaccinations.

Vaccines prevent severe illness, but not all, illness

While vaccines have done an extraordinary job of protecting people from serious illness and death, COVID has proven adept at evolving. This has been a challenge to preventing infection or transmission.

Even the introduction of the latest bivalent vaccines, which are specifically attuned to the dominant omicron strains, isn’t likely to change that, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“We’re going to have to learn to live with mild illness,” he said.

» READ MORE: Do I need the new COVID booster? And other questions you may have

Some experts like Offit say that rather than focusing on boosters, vaccination efforts should target the unvaccinated, and those who remain most vulnerable, including seniors and people with certain health conditions, including those with immune deficiencies.

To be considered fully vaccinated, people were urged to get two doses of the initial Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and one dose of a Johnson & Johnson shot. The rates of those doing so have been stagnant for months.

About three-quarters of residents of New Jersey and Pennsylvania are now protected. Uptake of subsequently recommended booster shots has been much lower, with less than half of fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians receiving at least one booster shot.

Questions around long COVID

The impact of long COVID, which causes chronic illness in some people infected with the virus, is unclear. There’s not clear evidence that additional vaccine shots significantly reduce the odds of developing the condition.

» READ MORE: Am I going to get COVID again? What to know about reinfection.

The loose definition also makes it difficult to determine what risk it poses, said Morris, the Penn biostatistician. Everything from lingering fatigue for weeks after an infection to months of debilitating illness can be cataloged as long COVID.

“One thing I can’t get a grasp on as a quantitative researcher is the prevalence, severity, and specificity of these symptoms,” he said.

What’s ahead

Most experts, including those at the city health department, anticipate some sort of fall or winter surge.

“I think there will be an increase,” CHOP’s Offit said, but prior exposure from vaccination or infections should ease its impact. “I have to believe it’ll be much less than we saw the previous two winters.”